Friday, April 2, 2010

Easter Magic in Miniatures

Limoges is a place in France, not a firm, but it is home to a wonderful tradition in fine porcelain that has existed since the early 1700s when kaolin clay was found in the prefecture of Limoges. A number of famous factories, including Royal Limoges, Bernardaud and Haviland, were established in the region. Prior to this, porcelain was imported primarily from China where the method of creation of hard paste porcelain was a trade secret.

Limoges boxes, per se, became popular first in the 18th century. Their popularity endured until the end of the 19th century. During this period, the boxes, despite their elegance and beauty, were made specifically for practical purposes, to enable individuals to carry small items such as medications, needles and snuff with them.

In the 1960s, an importer of Limoges porcelain decided to introduce the tiny boxes into the market again. From that point on, the craze for collecting miniature boxes from Limoges has attracted more than one generation of collectors and has resulted in their production by a number of different factories. In the late 20th and early 21st century, these boxes have been produced by Artoria, Rochard, Chamart and Eximious, among others. Often miniature boxes simply bear a stamp of Limoges, France with a notation of 'Peint Main' which translates to 'Hand-Painted'. Many individuals who are not fluent in French mistake 'Peint Main' for the name of an artist. Sometimes, the name of the artist or his/her initials are included on the box. As far as government regulations are concerned, the only requirement in France is that a box stamped with Limoges must have been made in the city of Limoges.

There are many different styles of Limoges miniatures and some but not all are linked to specific factories. Miniature reproductions of paintings by Fragonard or other 18th century French artists from the same school probably are the most common and have been produced in exquisite form as well as rather crude cheap ware. Firms such as Eximious specialise in tiny boxes shaped like interesting objects often associated with particular hobbies or places. Limoge boxes shaped like telephone kiosks, golf bags, cartons of eggs and even tins of sardines are among the many subjects produced by Eximious. These boxes tend to be hinged with tiny clasps that are made in a form connected with the motif of the box itself. For example, a box that features a cat may sport a gold clasp in the shape of a tiny mouse.

The classical form of the egg is another very popular style that is associated with Limoges boxes. Some of these eggs are hinged.

Another trend that has been extremely popular with collectors is the creation of a box with a secret 'treasure' inside. A porcelain Limoges carton of eggs may have a single egg that can be removed from the box; within a box that depicts a hen sitting on a nest may be a tiny porcelain chick.

Recently, porcelain boxes made in China have been sold as 'Limoges' with a stamp containing the words 'Limoges China'. Some unwary collectors misinterpret this to mean that the boxes are 'Porcelain' rather than having been made in China. The price of the Chinese imitations tends to be far lower than the authentic porcelain created in the Limoges region, although true Limoges porcelain, as it is made by a variety of factories, can be either superior or inferior.

Some of the antique 'hand-painted' Limoges china actually was finished by amateurs. This was quite a passion with young ladies from good families in the 19th century.

Famous factories in Limoges continue to produce dinnerware. At the same time, seasonal boxes and eggs are characteristic of the Limoges miniatures and some firms have developed an international tradition of creating clever and unusual boxes. The Egg cartons and Easter baskets shown here are among contemporary 'collector's pieces'.

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